The Pink-Footed Goose Window

While out birding in the North Shore of Massachusetts in late October, an alert opened a window that everyone wanted to jump into right away. Everyone that is, but me. I was hesitant. Eight hours was a long way to drive in one night, only to return later the following night. All to see one bird that led us into a Where’s Waldo goose chase over six months ago. I wasn’t ready to face thousands of geese again, searching in vain for a short pink bill and pink feet. I wanted to prepare and be sure. But as Jackson warned me that October day, the window of the Pink-Footed Goose started to shrink, even though preparations for the following November weekend were in full swing.

I tried to assure him that the sudden disappearance of two Pink-Footed Geese from Quebec and New Brunswick did not mean they weren’t there. Even if one was suddenly being seen in the southeastern part of Newfoundland. It only meant that birders were busy during the work week. Right?

I also tried to reason with him that the Nor’easter blowing through New England only had the goose laying low or temporarily sheltering in Newfoundland.

Three days passed and I was returning home from a long day of conferences, ready to leave for Canada within the hour. However, the goose had now not been seen for three days in either Quebec or New Brunswick. Jackson tried to persuade us that we had to travel the 26 hours to St. John’s instead of the 7 to New Brunswick and the 10 to Rimouski, Quebec. The goose, or geese, had moved.

In the end, being more stubborn than him, and with the support of Fiona, we got in the car and headed toward New Brunswick, with a planned rest in Bangor, Maine. At least we might see some Guillemots and Razorbills once in Rimouski.

The next morning, we all rose later than planned and soon realized that we were dealing with time zones and an upcoming daylight savings issue. We might not have time to get to the location in New Brunswick, visit family in Miramichi, and rush to Rimouski before sunset. We had to make a decision.

With the promise of more birds in Rimouski, we decided to forgo our first stop and go counterclockwise: Bangor to Rimouski to Miramichi.

Traveling was easy on the Canadian highways and we made good time. Eventually, we were on the smaller roads leading through the hilly countryside of northeastern Quebec, swarms of crows everywhere, no cars, and a sinking gas tank. At the top of every hill, I hoped to either see a town with a gas station or the dull gray of the St. Lawrence river beneath grayer clouds. Neither was seen and the needle evened out with E.

Then about ten miles outside of Rimouski, three things happened. First, we had cell service again. Second, a ping came through saying that the Pink-Footed Goose had been spotted an hour ago in Rimouski. Third, we found an open gas station.

The van was suddenly full of anticipation and energy. We were so close. Closer than the last time we were in southern Quebec in April and missed the goose by two and a half hours. Every turn brought us closer to the small parking lot where the elusive bird had been seen.

Finally, we arrived and knew it to be the correct spot. There were three other birders with large scopes pointing excitedly out onto the retreating tide and the seaweed-covered rocks. We stumbled out of the car and into the cold, trying to figure out exactly where their scopes were pointed. None of us spoke much French, so we couldn’t ask. Fortunately, one of the birders spoke pretty good English and offered up his scope.

Jackson eagerly peered through it.

‘Nothing,” he said.

The birder straightened the scope and told him to look again.

When he brought his eye away from the scope, he rolled it upward. “It’s only a Willet.”

The birder spoken to us excitedly again about the bird, trying to find the English name. When we told him, he nodded. It seems that a bird common to us was not so common here.

Finally, we asked about the Pink-Footed Goose.

“Yes,” he said. “This is the spot. But it went away with the tide.”

All of the air hissed out of us. Again.

This time we had missed the goose by only an hour and a half. It seemed that we were doomed. All the same, I predicted to everyone that I felt in my bones that goose would end up in northern New England before the end of the year.

As we stood there, we did notice some geese flying south of our spot and landing on the other end of the bridge. Maura suggested we go try our luck there. Some of us wanted to look in at Pointe-au-Pere. Eventually, we followed the geese.

At the other end of the bridge, we found a wide ranged of species, including Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, a Greater Yellowlegs, and hundreds of geese and gulls. In fact, geese kept flying over us in flocks of 20 or more birds.

Climbing down to a nearby pier and beach, we began following the movements of the geese and scanning for the important trait differences. Many times we had to stop and study different geese. But always it ended up being a Canada Goose in a misleading position or shadow. Then there was one goose that puzzled us. It seemed darker in some ways, smaller, and a little away from most of the other geese. Straining our eyes through the binoculars and cameras, zooming in on blurry pictures, we wondered for a long time. But it was impossible to determine anything for sure. There was no striking pink and the rest of the coloring around the head was impossible to figure out. Nature was against us with the awful lighting. In the end, we got one more picture of it flying away with two geese and we decided it must be an immature Canada Goose.

Disappointed, we decided to go look for some of the other birds recently spotted 20 minutes north at Pointe-au-Pere, hoping also that the Pink-Footed Goose from the earlier spotting had moved toward more open waters. The southward pattern of the other geese, though, said otherwise.

Pointe-au-Pere, which is also a maritime museum, was abandoned with no promising birders around. Instead, an old submarine lay along the rocks and black shapes bobbed in the choppy waters in the distance. Climbing up on the rocks, we hoped to find Guillemots or even a Razorbill. But our minimal binoculars and cameras couldn’t pick out any distinctive features. Only when some took off did we realize that most of them were White-Winged Scoters.

A little south of Pointe-au-Pere seemed more promising as we noticed hundreds of birds along the shore. Driving that way, we began to realize that most of the shadows were geese, as well as more scoters and American Black Ducks.

Learning from our last trip to Quebec, we took our time to scan all of the geese carefully. By this time, we had a clearer understanding of what we were looking for. But of the 200-300 geese, not one of them had features different from a Canada Goose. We did, however, find a flock of Dunlins and Sanderlings.

More and more geese appeared along the shore as we headed back into Rimouski, our heads spinning with hunger. We could no longer focus or were in the mood to check these geese out. It was 3:00 and we hadn’t eaten a meal since 7:00 that morning. A wild goose chase will do that do you.

After bumbling through ordering our meals and eating pizza “sans beurre,” we went back across the street to see if the goose had returned.

The birders had increased greatly. Some of them were in camouflage and some of them were laying down in the wet seaweed. All of them had some sort of huge lens pointed at a rock. But once again, all of the excitement was over the Willet.

Looking through my binoculars and beyond the rocks, all the way to the other side of the bridge, I saw a mass of dark forms swimming in the water. We had been to that side before and had seen a lot of geese, even one that we wondered over for a long time.

Again, there were many geese and a remarkable amount of Great Blue Herons standing on small rocks surrounded by water. But with a setting sun, it was impossible to determine what was what. And it was then that we rounded a corner and found thousands of birds lining rocks, beaches, and mudflats. But it was almost dusk now. If only we had one more day to come back and check this area out at mid-tide and during full sun.

Walking back, we debated our next move, beginning to argue out of exhaustion and discouragement. To mark the blackening mood, a murder of over 50 crows flew out over the water.

Finally, we walked our cold, drooping bodies to the car, where we began researching our options. Should we go to Miramichi? Should we stay in Rimouski? Should we call in sick Monday? When we thought we had a plan, I flipped the key in the ignition.

Nothing!

Again.

Nothing!

The battery was dead. Had I left the lights one? Had we been charging all of our phones for too long? I also knew that my battery was a bit corroded from another birding trip on the Cape. Whatever happened, we were stuck in Rimouski with limited French.

It was now night.

Fortunately, an older couple got into their car next to us. Taking a breath, I knocked on their window and asked, “Parlez vous Anglais?” I was too tired, too cold, to even tried to figure out how to ask for a jump in French.

Lucky for us, they knew enough to get the gist. However, they had to go back to their house to get cables. Thirty minutes later, thanks to this wonderful Canadian couple, we were back on the road. But not for long. It was too late to drive anywhere else. Fate had decided for us. We would stay in Rimouski.

Two hours later, following a giant water slide and slim meal of bread, cheese, and chocolate, we began looking through our photos. Usually this was my job and as usual I had already gone through 300 of the 700 we had taken. But for once, Jackson asked to do some of the work. For a few hours we went backward in time, zooming in and out, lightening, identifying, and moving back to the beginning with nothing to show.

Then Jackson said, “I think this might be it.”

We all said, “What?” Was he looked at the Dunlins or the little black shapes at Pointe-au-Pere? Had he found a Guillemot or Razorbill?

“The goose,” he said. “Look.”

Getting up, the film of exhaustion began to drop away. “Really?”

“Yes, look.” Jackson turned the computer. “It’s the one we kept looking at. The one swimming with the other two. Look.”

He was mutedly excited and didn’t seem to trust himself.

I looked at the zoomed in picture.

There was the smaller goose and I could see in this larger version that it’s bill was much shorter than the Canada Geese nearby. The shading around its neck and head were also different.

“Wait!” he said as he scrolled to another picture.

Maura and Fiona grew silent.

In the new picture were three geese flying, the smallest one in front. And though the picture lacked color from the wintery day, you could see the lightness of those feet, even a pinkish tinge, tucked up to its body. That last detail said it all.

“Definitely!” I yelled, turning to Maura and Fiona.

“We found it!”

“No way,” Maura said, her eyes wide.

“Yes, we found the Pink-Footed Goose!”

Lamely, we all gave each other high fives. It wasn’t quite the celebration we had expected. Maybe if we had had our stuffed Pink-Footed Goose squeaky toy, we would have danced around to its squeak. Or maybe, after all of this time, it didn’t seem real.

But even after looking at the photos a thousand times over, we knew it to be true. And later eBird alerts showed sightings in the same spot around the same time.

Yes. We had finally found the Pink-Footed Goose. After everything, the fates had shifted again and opened a new window for us.

“What next?’ asked Jackson.

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